Deanery Conference 2015 Report by Lisa von Schlippe

The annual Conference and Festival of the Deanery of Great Britain and Ireland took place as usual on the last weekend of May, from the evening of Friday 22nd May to lunchtime on Monday 25th May.  For the fourth year, it was held at a Christian Conference Centre to the north east of London.  We share the Centre with other groups, though we have our own appointed rooms for services, talks and workshops.

There are three key elements which make up the conference: worshipping together, learning through talks, workshops and discussion groups, and fellowship with other Orthodox.  Those attending are free to come to as many, or as few, of the organised activities as they like.  Many people take advantage of the grounds and countryside surrounding the centre to have a walk or just to sit and be still.

The conference is not exclusively for adults.  Families are encouraged to come, and this year the helpers had around 30 children to look after during the formal programme.  This allows parents to listen to the talks and participate in the workshops and discussion groups, and also for the young ones to make friends with other Orthodox children.  For some of them, it is a foretaste of the annual Children’s Camp.

It is not only the children who value the friendships they form when they come together.  Our parishes and communities are great distances from one another, so for many people, the conference is the one opportunity in the year to meet other Orthodox in the Deanery.  This year, priests or lay people attended from every parish in the Deanery and seven of the nine Communities.  The journey undertaken by Mother Mary who travels to the conference from the Shetland Isles to the south east of England is an inspiration, and puts to shame anyone who complains of the journey round the M25.  Friends who have moved abroad from the UK are welcomed back, so we were glad to see former parishioners who now live in Russia, France and Cyprus.

The established pattern of the conference is for services or prayers every morning and evening, talks with time for questions or discussion before lunch, free time and then discussion groups and workshops in the afternoons.  An innovation this year was to celebrate a Panikhida on Saturday morning, remembering many members of the Deanery and our old Diocese.  At the Liturgy on Sunday morning, we rejoiced at the ordination of a new Reader and a Sub-deacon, which was made possible by the presence of Archbishop Job.

No account of the conference is ever complete without a mention of the party on Sunday night.  In some ways, it is the Agape meal after the liturgy in the morning - a joyous gathering of the whole community in friendship. Young and old danced and sang during the evening.  There were some solo performances from the children, and family groups, and we had recitals of cautionary tales by Hilaire Belloc and Stanley Holloway.  But most importantly, we were together.

The theme of this year’s conference was “The Beauty of Holiness”.  From the outset, we were challenged to question our perceptions of beauty. Sometimes, outward forms can obscure the real beauty of the essence.  In church singing, elaborate and beautiful music can distract from the words. Icons can become obscured deliberately by the silver riza (cover) which covers everything except the face and hands, or by years and centuries of grime.

There were five talks in all.  On Saturday morning, Canon Hugh Wybrew spoke of the historical development of Eucharistic worship, from the early gatherings in homes for a common meal, to the formal rituals which were transferred from the Imperial court to the Church in Byzantium.  By the late 4th century, communion by the laity at every liturgy had declined, partly coinciding with the development of monasticism and rules for purification before communion.  Prayers began to be said secretly instead of audibly, and some of the pronouns changed from the collective “we” to the personal “I”. The gradual rise of the iconostasis further separated the laity from participating fully in the liturgy of the church.

Father Ivan Moody also spoke on Saturday morning.  His theme was the beauty of liturgical music.  We were challenged to consider how far our cultures influence our concepts of beauty, whether it is objective or subjective.  For many centuries, choirs sang in unison, but now parishes and communities feel they must try to sing in harmony, in several parts.  We were also asked to consider why there has been so little new music composed in the last century, why creativity seems to have been stifled.  In music, as in vestments, icons, chalices and other liturgical objects, there has been a move towards standardisation.  The individual’s striving for beauty and creativity is not given a place.  This is a relatively recent development in the life of the Church, and it will take some time for people to become rooted in the traditions of the Church before they can be truly creative.

Archbishop Job’s talk is being published in our parish Newsletter, so I will only reflect on some of the questions and answers which followed.  A key theme was that each one of us is called to use our particular gifts and talents to reunite the created world to God.  The gifts offered at the Liturgy are bread and wine - wheat and grapes transformed by man’s hands into something new.  But this must be done respectfully and not wastefully.  The Church has always seen the person as a whole, with a unity and balance between the body, spirit and soul.  The physical aspect of a person is equally involved as the soul on our path towards salvation - through hearing, seeing, bowing, being anointed, baptised.  By our actions, we should try to bring the whole of creation back to God.

The final talks were by Father Alexander and Patsy Fostiropoulos, on sacred space and holy images.  Through a series of photographs, Father Alexander showed us many examples of sacred spaces - in churches, on the tops of mountains, by water and in wells, in cemeteries, and in icon corners.  We were called to reflect on how we use and sometimes abuse these sacred spaces, and how we can make them truly sacred once more.  Patsy spoke of the task of the iconographer to proclaim the good news that “God is with us”, which was made possible by the Incarnation.  Icons are a point of communion with God, even though we rarely spend time simply standing before an icon, seeing it, and hearing the silence.  The saints depicted in the icons stand with us in eternity, and one can feel the real presence of the whole Church, past, present and future when standing surrounded by icons and frescos.  In depicting a saint, the iconographer shows their essence, their transfigured selves.  We are called upon to live the same transfigured life, by becoming more truly ourselves.  Icons help us touch the divine, and to touch the divine and holy in all people and all creation.